America's Toxic Faith Problem
America has a toxic faith problem, and we need to talk about it. I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago on who “real Christians” were. In the blog I discussed how many liberal Christians tend to look at the bigotry and hate coming from evangelical conservative Christians and label them as “not real” Christians. I called out this tendency and pointed out why they are, in fact, real Christians. Then I challenged Christians to look within the church and their religion itself to identify what it is that is producing these bigoted views. Then, they should work to fix it, rather than just distance themselves from the problem. Today, I am going to explore one possible source of the problem: faith.
As atheists, we talk about this issue amongst ourselves, but we generally stay away from the topic even with our most trusted Christian friends for fear of offending them. Only the most outspoken, loud, and often angry voices talk about America’s faith problem. This ends up saddling atheists with the stereotype that we are all loud, angry, and offensive. People think we are incapable of respecting other people’s religions.
This is one of our problems. It is on us to learn how to communicate why we see faith as a problem, to the people who would be most willing to help us find a solution. We cannot make people understand our point of view by shouting them down. And, we cannot fix how people view faith, because we are on the outside. We need inside support. So, against better judgement, I am going to attempt to start the conversation.
Faith is powerful. A person’s faith in their god can feel like an overwhelmingly positive relationship. For many who are religious, faith connects them to something greater than themselves. Faith can give a person hope and meaning in their lives. These intense and positive emotions are wonderful. And for those who have a healthy view of faith, it can be hard to imagine how faith could be dangerous.
Each person’s faith is personal to them. There are no two faiths that are identical, but they all behave the same way. All versions of faith allow you to accept that something is true, even without an objective way of knowing it is true. The problem is, not everyone is right. There is an objective reality, and faith is an unreliable way of determining what that reality is. That is why we have science.
Science is a systematic and methodical way of determining truth. And we know science works because we can use the conclusions drawn from science to make airplanes fly, and predict the weather, and edit the genes of an organism to fight disease. Science is demonstrable, and repeatable. Faith does not operate this way. There is no way, using faith, to objectively tell what the truth is. But Christian culture acts as though faith is just as valid of a way to know truth as any other method. What is more, Christian culture portrays people who use faith in their daily lives to "know" truths about the world, as having a closer relationship to god. For example, depictions in movies will show a mother having faith that her child will miraculously recover from an illness, instead of listening to doctors. Or songs like “Jesus take the wheel”, which tells the story of a mother losing control of her car and instead of using safe driving techniques like putting the car in neutral, turning into the skid, and guiding the car to the side of the road, she lets go of the wheel entirely and has “faith” that Jesus will keep her and her child safe.
Christian culture for years has been feeding the public the idea that even established science, and professional knowledge can be bypassed by faith. So, people think faith is something you can use as a tool in your everyday life to help make decisions.
For many who are religious or spiritual, once they can accept that faith is a good way to arrive at truth about the everyday world, then they have no need for hard-earned objective knowledge. When Christian culture pushes the idea that science is good and all, but faith is always stronger, then it diminishes people’s respect for science. This is why we end up with people who are Christian denying science and common sense.
Once people are relying on faith as a measure of truth for most things, then it is not a difficult leap for them to attribute their sense of right and wrong, good, and bad, to their faith. Because, if faith can give you knowledge of god, why would it not also be able to give you knowledge of everything else? And if they have faith to tell them what is good and bad, what is right and wrong, and their faith comes from god, then there is no need to examine the accuracy of their sense of good and bad.
The issue here is that a person’s sense of right and wrong, good, and bad, does not come from god. It comes from the society we live in, it comes from our parents, it comes from friends, family, teachers, political leaders, entertainment. Our sense of good and bad comes from systems and influences from outside ourselves, and those systems are flawed. Because those systems are flawed, we need to be able to examine them, find their faults, and correct them. We need to be able to evaluate how those systems have ingrained in an implicit bias that may be wrong. For example, if a person believes their sense of right and wrong was given to them by faith (i.e. god), and their sense of right and wrong happens to be oppressive to someone else, then they will never examine the source of their bigotry. They will continue to think they are right because the truth was given to them by faith. No amount of science, or evidence could ever sway them.
Christian culture in America upholds faith as a virtue. If you have faith, you have a relationship with god, therefore you are good. If you do not have faith, you don’t have a relationship with god and therefore you're untrustworthy. Faith is often tied to a Christian’s identity as something that makes them a good person. They have pride in the fact that they possess faith, and this makes them feel good about themselves. So many people use it as a substitute for both knowledge and ethical judgment. Instead of working hard to learn the objective truth about disease or global warming, you can just use faith to “know” what is true. It’s faster, easier, and makes you feel good about yourself.
Faith is dangerous when it is not handled responsibly. Glorifying faith as a virtue is causing problems with many Christians regarding determining what is real. Responsible Christians, in my experience, only apply faith to their god belief and other things that science cannot determine. This use of faith harms no one. It is when faith starts getting applied to things inappropriately that you get misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and bigotry.
So, now that we have identified the problem, what can be done? It starts with trying to reach out to allies. We must help people within Christian culture recognize the dangers of runaway faith. We have to impress upon Christians who care about the integrity of their religion, the importance of changing the way they speak about faith. Without that, religious people may see their religion attached to acts of domestic terrorism, white nationalism, and the like.
I think many liberal Christians have an inherent understanding of how to use their faith responsibly, but that does not mean that all Christians do. We need Christians who can start calling out "toxic faith" when they see it. We need Christians to have these open and frank discussions about faith the same way the secular community does. Christians need to play an active role in rejecting harmful depictions of faith in the media and entertainment. Faith should not be used as an everyday tool. Faith is not a way to tell who is good and who is bad. Faith is not a way to tell what science is true, and what science you can ignore. Faith is not a way to make life decisions. Responsible faith is directed toward the big spiritual and metaphysical questions, only.
If any of my Christian friends need a little more convincing, I will quote 1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
In the original Greek, the word for love is more closely translated as 'a love of others', or compassion. The greatest of the three virtues, is compassion, not faith. Faith can lead you astray if used irresponsibly. I urge my Christian friends to replace faith with compassion. I do not to suggest they never had compassion, but if you have ever prioritized faith over compassion, consider reorganizing. Christianity offers one shining example of this hierarchy, in the person of Jesus. The depiction of Jesus is one of compassion, throughout his life, and a strong faith. However, while his life slipped away, he showed compassion for his fellow convicts and directly questioned god, and his own faith, crying out, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani", "Oh god, why have you forsaken me?". Thus, his life can be understood as a testament to the supremacy of compassion over faith.
Faith can keep you blind to your own biases, but compassion can make your set aside what you think you know, and thoughtfully listen to someone. Even if you do not feel you personally have a problem with toxic faith, call out the people that do. Do not refrain from having difficult conversations with people just because faith is an untouchable subject.
Our country is on a precipice. We cannot afford to put off uncomfortable conversations any longer. We have seen racism, bigotry and hatred bubble up in America, and many of these people are using religion and faith as a justification. It is not because they are “not real” Christians. It is because they have been taught to use faith in an inappropriate way, justifying their own biases. So, we need Christians to do something about it! Do something about the way people are taught to view faith at your church or in your home. Do something about the way you talk about faith, do something about the way you think about faith.
I cannot make the changes; I can only offer my perspective. The people who use their faith to hate others will not change themselves. We need Christian allies to start making changes to the American Christian culture, to help us reverse course. It cannot be done any other way.
We want to hear from you, lets start the conversation. Tell us your thoughts in the comments.
Author: Tracey Benefield